Governing ethnic diversity in rainbow nations

The politics of citizenship and multi-culturalism in Peninsular Malaysia—the case of Penang

in Focaal
Restricted access

The present article analyzes how, after its independence in 1957, Malaysia has been able to manage the difficult coexistence among its three numerically most relevant ethnic groups (Malay, Chinese and Indian). This complex situation, a legacy of the British colonial-like plural society, has been governed via a specific model of multi-racial citizenship, which is significantly unlike the Western European ones in which, as a rule, the equivalence between nationality and citizenship predominates. Starting from the specific example of Penang in Peninsular Malaysia, the article intends to highlight two points. Firstly, that citizenship must be perceived as an agonistic process with competition, tensions and conflicts as well as permanent negotiations. Secondly, that the Occidental agenda, based on liberal principles, can no longer be regarded as the only valid one. Therefore, believing that the Western type of citizenship could be a universalistic institution exportable anywhere is misleading. Consequently, citizenship ought to be analyzed instead as a 'concrete abstraction' that is set up in strict correlation with the specific historical contexts and with particular circumstances of a sociological nature, relative to the characteristics of each society.